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Should You Buy An R32 Nissan Skyline GT-R?

A checklist to help you determine whether or not the original Godzilla is right for you

Aaron Bonk
Oct 5, 2017

Nobody's got to sell you on why you ought to want Nissan's Skyline GT-R. What began as a performance-based spinoff of a luxury car made by a manufacturer you've never even heard of later culminated into the twin-turbo, all-wheel drive R32 GT-R produced from '89 to '94 that boy racer fantasies are made of and that much of today's import-tuning landscape owes a debt to. It's a car that dominated the Japanese Touring Car Championship (JTCC), claimed numerous victories in Australia, and that, some three decades later, you've got a shot at owning.

Before there was the GT-R, though, there was the Prince Motor Company's Skyline. It was a luxury car, its overhead-valve engines were barely good for 80 hp, and you couldn't care less about it. A merger with Nissan, two generations of Skylines later, and Nissan suits who cared about motorsports meant the Hakosuka was born—the original GT-R and the machine that'd lead to the R32, the official reemergence of the GT-R nameplate after a 10-year hiatus and the unofficial birth of Godzilla.

But you ordering up an R32 GT-R of your own isn't as straightforward as the time you bought that Tercel off of your aunt. And, as it turns out, owning one can be even trickier. To help make things more like that experience with your aunt and that Tercel, we hooked up with GT-R expert Sean Morris of Long Beach, California's Toprank International Vehicle Importers, who's responsible for delivering more than 150 R32 GT-Rs stateside and whose experience with the icon of a chassis dates back to your days on the merry-go-round.

Should you buy an r32 skyline GT R RB26DETT Photo 2/21   |   Should You Buy An R32 Skyline GT R RB26DETT
Should you buy an r32 skyline GT R Photo 3/21   |   You owning an R32 GT-R is easier than it's ever been, but that doesn't mean it's cheap. Plan on spending upward of $25,000 for an already-imported and totally legal specimen. Look for something with lower mileage, in a rare color like Grey Pearl Blue, for example, or anything with NISMO, N1, V-spec, or V-spec II badges, and plan on paying a whole lot more, and that's if you can even find one.

WHY YOU NEED AN R32 GT-R

You already know that the R32 GT-R's powered by the almighty RB26DETT engine and that it's got an AWD layout. That is, in part, why you need one. For Nissan, FIA homologation was always a consideration when developing this engine, which means it was built with a purpose—to go racing. Nissan will tell you that the 2.6L, twin-cam, inline-six is good for a maximum of 276 hp and 260 lb-ft of torque, but history's revealed that those figures are nothing short of conservative. The RB26DETT is based off of things like a nearly indestructible cast-iron block, parallel-mounted twin turbos, and individual throttle bodies. Together, they make up a recipe that stinks of '90s supercars and that today's automotive manufacturers with their dinky hybrids and belt-driven transmissions have all but forgotten about.

Should you buy an r32 skyline GT R RB26DETT Photo 4/21   |   The RB26DETT isn't exclusive to the R32 GT-R, but it's what makes it so special. Where else are you gonna find a 2.6L, inline engine with a couple of turbos and individual throttle bodies?

It's the AWD layout that makes the GT-R a GT-R, though. The longitudinally mounted engine up front bolts up to what you think looks like a regular, old RWD transmission that allows it to behave more like something powered by its hind end until you let things get squirrelly. Nissan does all of this with ATTESA E-TS (Advanced Total Traction Engineering System for All-Terrain, Electronic Torque Split), a system based off of that RWD-style gearbox that drives the rear differential through a standard tailshaft. At the end of the transmission sits the AWD transfer case where a short driveshaft travels back to the front wheels through another differential. Inside the transfer case a multi-plate clutch pack distributes torque. Information like G-force, throttle position, and individual wheel speed is fed into the computer. If traction's lost, the clutches intervene, engaging and splitting torque up evenly. It's sophisticated, it's elegant, and you want it.

THE USED R32 GT-R CHECKLIST

It sounds like one big party, but Morris is here to tell you where things can go wrong, how to fix them and, better yet, how to avoid any of that in the first place.

The body: The GT-R's got a mix of steel and aluminum body panels of which Morris says you ought to pay attention to. The aluminum hood and fenders up front are prone to corrosion and the steel ones out back can rust, both on their trailing ends near the ground where debris is typically kicked up. Speaking of aluminum panels, be sure those fasteners holding those fenders and that hood into place are still using those plastic washers that Nissan says they should. The plastic runs interference between the aluminum and steel and helps ward off corrosion.

Should you buy an r32 skyline GT R fender check Photo 5/21   |   The hood and aluminum fenders up front are prone to corrosion and the steel ones out back can rust, both on their trailing ends near the ground where debris is often kicked up. Remove the rear spats to look for potential damage.

When it comes to paint, the VIN plate located on the firewall will tell you what color that GT-R's supposed to be; look for the three-digit series of numbers, letters, or both that'll reveal whether or not the one you're looking at's been resprayed. For example, "KH2" means you're looking at what should be Gun Grey Metallic.

Should you buy an r32 skyline GT R firewall chassis plate Photo 6/21   |   The firewall-mounted chassis plate reveals all sorts of important information, including the car's original color, what interior and drivetrain it's supposed to have, and whether or not it's even a GT-R. For example, here, KG1 tells us that this GT-R was originally Jet Silver Metallic, and the BNR32 tells us that it is, indeed, a GT-R. If you suspect this plate's been tampered with, don't even consider buying that car.
Should you buy an r32 skyline GT R rear badge Photo 7/21   |   It isn't foolproof, but sometimes that rear-mounted GT-R badge can reveal a paint job. Look closely and you'll notice that these badges aren't die-cut, and that there's a specific one for every color.

Don't let minor body damage or the fear of you not being able to get replacement parts keep you from owning a GT-R, though. Several Nissan dealerships here in the States have access to R32 body parts, Morris tells us, and there are online resources for all of that like never before.

The interior: Morris says there's a good chance that instrument cluster will have been swapped out for something else, like a 260 kph NISMO one, perhaps, but not to make a big deal out of it. Instead, pay attention to normal wear-and-tear items like the pedals or the turn-signal indicator lever to estimate mileage. According to Morris, a bit of bubbling on the passenger-side dashboard is almost inevitable, too.

Should you buy an r32 skyline GT R headlight switch Photo 8/21   |   Instead of trusting the mileage on the instrument cluster, look to wear items like the turn signal indicator, the pedals, or the seat bolsters.
Should you buy an r32 skyline GT R dash bubbling check Photo 9/21   |   Morris says bubbling of the dash isn't uncommon. Look for signs of it on the passenger side, just in between the air vents along the crease.
Should you buy an r32 skyline GT R steering wheels Photo 10/21   |   If you plan on swapping steering wheels, Morris wants you to know that there are two different styles, later ones (left), of which their mounting slots are positioned straight up and down, and early ones (right) with mounting slots positioned at an angle. Install the wrong one and you'll disable HICAAS.

Like body parts, interior parts are just as easy to come by. Morris has got one tip, though: when swapping steering wheels, determine whether or not you've got an early style wheel or a later one. Bolt the wrong one into place and you've just disabled HICAAS—Nissan's four-wheel steering system—and cocked your wheel to the side in a silly looking sort of way.

The engine: Despite how bulletproof the RB26DETT is, it isn't perfect. Morris points out the inline-six engine's weak links, like its detonation-prone #6 cylinder that can run lean because of the intake manifold's shape. The factory oil pressure gauge can't be trusted; its throttle bodies can leak as can its fuel injectors' lower seals; its MAF sensors as well as its ignition coils and their plastic connectors can fail; and its oil pump won't last forever. According to Morris, the rear turbo's compressor housing is also way too close to the front turbo's turbine, which'll lead to some sort of turbo failure sooner or later. And although the idea of those ceramic turbine wheels might sound good, Morris says that detonation can cause them to snap fairly easily.

None of this should be the end of you considering a GT-R, though. An aftermarket intake manifold and proper tuning can ward off that detonation, often times those MAF sensors can be fixed with soldering, and parts like ignition coils and oil pumps can all be easily sourced, according to Morris.

Finally, RB engines are an interference design, which means preventative maintenance like a timing belt, water pump, and all of the associated pulleys will never be a bad idea and won't cost you a whole lot more than those ones you just bought for your old Civic.

Should you buy an r32 skyline GT R MAF sensor Photo 11/21   |   It isn't uncommon for either of the RB engine's MAF sensors to fail. According to Morris, you'll know it when you hit what feels like a 2,500rpm rev limiter. Lucky for you they can be cut open and, with a bit of soldering, made good as new.
Should you buy an r32 skyline GT R ignition coils Photo 12/21   |   Like any car going on 30 years, the RB's ignition coils won't last forever. Before replacing them, though, Morris says to check their plastic electrical connectors, which can often fail.
Should you buy an r32 skyline GT R RB camshaft trigger Photo 13/21   |   The RB engine's camshaft trigger is what tells the car's ECM information like camshaft position and, therefore, crankshaft position. According to Morris, they don't typically fail until you start fooling around with it, like when removing the upper timing belt cover to expose the cam gears and not properly spacing the sensor away from the head.
Should you buy an r32 skyline GT R remote mountd HICAAS Photo 14/21   |   Not everybody cares about Nissan's four-wheel steering system, HICAAS, and just because it's been ditched doesn't mean you shouldn't be considering that GT-R. Its components make getting to the oil filter a challenge, which is why remote-mounted setups like these make for a good investment.
Should you buy an r32 skyline GT R pressure solenoid restrictor Photo 15/21   |   Remove the restricter leading to the pressure solenoid and watch boost go from 9 psi to around 14 psi. Morris says that most of the time the restrictor's been removed and that as long as premium fuel's used, it's not an issue. On a similar note, the chances of you finding an unmodified GT-R are almost zero.

The drivetrain: It's the ATTESA E-TS AWD layout that makes you want the GT-R instead of something like the RWD GTS-T but don't think that its drivetrain's indestructible. Third gear won't last forever once you pass the 500hp mark and those fourth-gear synchros won't always play nicely, Morris advises. Depending on whether or not you've got an early style transmission or a later one, Morris says many Z32 300ZX internals are compatible. And when it comes to those synchros, a lot of times, he says, heavy-duty gear oil can make all the difference.

Should you buy an r32 skyline GT R transmission internals Photo 16/21   |   Aside from the main shaft, the R32 GT-R's and Z32 300ZX's transmission internals are quite similar. When it comes to the R32, however, there are early style and later-style transmissions, which means you sourcing the right replacement parts can get a little hairy. For example, if you've got a later-style gearbox, you can get away with replacing a single gear set; if you've got an older transmission and you plan on using Z32 parts, you'll need to replace almost all of its internals.
Should you buy an r32 skyline GT R clutch slave cylinder Photo 17/21   |   The clutch slave cylinder can shed some light on whether or not you've got an early style or a later-style transmission. Push-style slave cylinders like these can be found on early style and later-style transmissions, but you'll only find pull-style slave cylinders on later-style gearboxes.

Plan on wearing that clutch out early on, as Morris says, if you don't load the drivetrain enough when launching, breaking that front differential someday, too, and going through axle boots up front just as you would with any other car. Morris suggests upgrading that front differential before it breaks, though. Here, the differential and the engine block share the same cast-aluminum oil pan; send a spider gear through that pan and you're on your way to yanking that engine all the way out just to replace things.

Should you buy an r32 skyline GT R oil pan Photo 18/21   |   Both the engine and the front differential share the same oil pan. Send a spider gear out the front of it and you won't just be replacing that differential, you'll be plucking that engine out just to swap a pan into place.
Should you buy an r32 skyline GT R axle boot Photo 19/21   |   Failure points are few when it comes to the R32 GT-R's drivetrain. Aside from the front differential, torn axle boots are about the extent of your worries. Also, notice the brake calipers; according to Morris, aside from larger front rotors, the GT-R's and the Z32 300ZX's brake systems are identical.
Should you buy an r32 skyline GT R Photo 20/21   |   Out back there aren't many points of failure. According to Morris, you've got to be in the 900hp range before that rear end or its axles will decide to fail.

The chassis: Morris says there isn't too much to be concerned about with the chassis. Keeping the brakes in working order is easy, partly because they're almost identical to the Z32 300ZX's and partly because the aftermarket's got it covered. Morris says that removing HICAAS is common and nothing to worry about. Do it right and you'll free up space under the hood and make oil changes a whole lot easier. Do it without knowing what you're doing, though, and you just might be like some of those knuckleheads Morris has come across who've inadvertently disabled ATTESA.

THE GOOD AND THE BAD

Why you want one:

  • Even you'll have a hard time blowing up an RB26DETT.
  • ATTESA E-TS AWD. That is all.
  • It's twin-turbocharged from the factory.
  • Here, aftermarket support abounds.
  • All your friends will envy you.

Why you don't:

  • While it may be legally to import, it isn't cheap to do.
  • You'll need help getting it from Japan to your garage.
  • Pep Boys won't have that timing belt.
  • Insuring it won't be easy. Or cheap.

HOW TO BUY A R32 GT-R

You getting an R32 GT-R will never be as easy as you plopping down a week's pay for some raggedly old Civic hatchback. Here, just about everyone's against you, including the federal government, the EPA, and whatever DMV you think you'll be registering it at. Try going the purchase process alone and you'll either spend way too much or end up with something that'll only get taken away from you at some point. Look to a firm like Toprank International Vehicle Importers, though, who's legally imported and sold more than 150 R32 GT-Rs, and you're on your way to doing things right.

Should you buy an r32 skyline GT R Photo 21/21   |   Should You Buy An R32 Skyline GT R

Today, you taking advantage of the R32 GT-R's age is your best bet at legally importing one. Since it's more than 25 years old—the federal government's cutoff—all of a sudden things like crash tests, emissions, and DOT requirements aren't as important as they once were. There are caveats, though. First, that GT-R had better have its original engine or an EPA-approved equivalent. And second, depending on the state you'll be registering it in, that GT-R still might not be emissions-compliant even though the feds say it is.

You'd be a fool to not contact somebody like Morris, who's familiar with the ins and outs of the importing process and who, in most cases, knows the details better than the people who wrote the laws. The whole process starts with Morris' people in Japan who hand-pick cars suitable for sale here in the States. That means the chances of you paying for an R32 GT-R that won't start are slim. And if you live in California, you're in luck. International Vehicle Importers has done most of the legwork for you, dealing with the state's version of the EPA—CARB—and making sure you're in the clear to drive it just as you would with your aunt's Tercel. But you better have $25K set aside at the very least.

Sources

Toprank International Vehicle Importers
Long Beach, CA 90808
https://www.importavehicle.com
By Aaron Bonk
390 Articles

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